Published in Issue 12 by Daneva H. Dansby
From the author: Many thanks to those who were so kind to engage with me in a tête-à-tête for this article, especially: Adam Gross, Executive Director of Art Platform-Los Angeles; Hillary Metz, Director of Blythe Projects, Culver City, CA who has presented at fairs throughout the country; and Chor Boogie, Artist whose Live-Installations have appeared at festivals and fairs in the US and abroad.
The art world is no stranger to the sorcerer's play of smoke and mirrors—allusion via the illumination of well-placed lights and gleaming white walls creating an atmosphere of reverence for the objects on display. With museums and galleries effecting a clockwork schedule of 'put 'em up and tear 'em down,' the fair and biennale circuit has followed suit, multiplying like the magician's fertile rabbit pulled from the hat, and let loose upon a public transfixed by the track lights above.
That an appreciation of contemporary art continues to grow is evident in the plethora of festivals and fairs popping up the world over. A review of today's top art hot spots reads like a dream vacation getaway: Abu Dhabi, New York, Venice, London, Miami, Morocco, Rio, and if Kassel, Germany is not a seaside resort, it at least boasts its own medieval palace. In this rush to stamp one's passport with the newest exotic locale, one wonders if this orgy of art has somehow lost its vision and the rabbit's tunnel instead leads to a maddening disco ball, incessantly reflecting the gyrating ruse of the next best party.
2011 saw two new fairs joining the Los Angeles autumn calendar, while international fairs such as Frieze are jumping the pond for the New York skyline. This year's incarnation of the Venice Biennale welcomed 10 additional countries for a record 89 official national pavilions in spite of the relative costs to newcomers, well-over a million euros, to retain the 20-year leases on the renovated spaces of the Arsenale. Ostensibly, what separates the biennale, or in its less showy description, the reoccurring exhibition, from the art fair is the latter's mercantile function: still, with such derisive comments by the likes of uber-dealer Charles Saatchi on his contemporarys' descent upon the mythical, soon-to-be-Atlantis of Venice as a "demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth . . . [where]. . .pleasure is to be found in having their lovely friends measuring the weight of their baubles". . . the implication seems that the two are already happily cohabitating in a bed of money.
What happened between the noble pursuit of art so elegantly transcribed by the founders of Germany's Dokumenta in the wake of Nazi domination in 1955 "to reconcile German public life with international modernity and . . . to confront its own failed Enlightenment" to reveal the headlines of the day "See Pictures of Supermodels and Art Stars Partying During Art Basel Miami Beach Week"? Have we all gone blind under the glare of the lights -the art-lover, creator, curator, 'hanger'on'er- and in this blight of art fairs, biennales, festivals and new-fangled happenings forgotten that what we all 'say' we love about art, that rapturous moment of transcendence, has dropped its guise to reveal a transparent, vapid, mass of masses, out looking for a good time?
In addition to the explosion of fairs and festivals, the marathon display of artwork at these venues makes it virtually impossible to devote any length of time to the art of viewing. Aisle-ways crammed full of work vie for the customer's attention in a race against the clock to see and be seen. While it may be a visual overload, the art fair's seemingly free-for-all-format has its benefits and as pointed out by Adam Gross: "There is no other way to see hundreds of galleries and artists, in one place at one time, over the space of a few days." Though the pecking order hierarchy of the fair and festival can be a hindrance to emerging galleries and artists (parallel the economic downturn taking its hardest toll on the little guy) there is a certain democratizing effect at play as more and more participants join the ranks. Miami may not have the home advantages that LA's Pacific Standard Time has espoused, its very own thriving artistic community, but it does have the batting power of hosting multiple shows, running consecutively at the same time that in effect draw a larger, international, audience that far exceeds a regional attendance.
The more established shows also offer a degree of reputation through the 'vetting' process of presenting galleries and curators. And if the frenzied, frenetic, environment of the party leads to some intoxicated purchases, so be it, for contrary to the much-loved adage, artists do in fact like to eat. Perhaps it is easier to consider these powwows as a type of industry trade show, and like all such trade shows, as an offering of the varied selection on hand. These convention-style settings present a time for "cross-pollination" between colleagues, as noted by Hillary Metz, while providing inspiration to a general public that is open to everyone even if only 1% can afford the blue-chip prizes.
Strip away the lights, tear down the walls, and as both Adam and Chor point out, the elephant in the room remains, as much as us ardent art-lovers would like to ignore its existence. Art does not exist in a vacuum and our pathological reverence for the pursuit of expression must acknowledge that a gallery is a business and artists are in the business of making art. But who wants to believe in such stark proclamations when there is the option of a good spectacle and a trip down the rabbit hole where a few glasses of wine may just as easily result in a moment of enlightenment as crossing paths with one's next muse. The art industry at least appreciates that diversion is one method of illuminating the way.